Saturday, July 20, 2024

Virginia Senate Set to Take Up Military Tuition Program, Skill Games

The Virginia state Capitol in Richmond. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate will reconvene in Richmond today with major uncertainty looming over both of the two main topics on its agenda: changes to a tuition benefit program for military families and a possible end to the ban on skill games.

The Senate is scheduled to gavel in at 1 p.m. to take up the potential restoration of previous eligibility rules for a state program that provides free college to children and spouses of military members killed or disabled as a result of their service. To try to scale back costs, the General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin changed the program’s rules last month to limit who’s eligible for it.

The Senate is also expected to take another go at legalizing skill games, the slot machine lookalikes installed in convenience stores, restaurants and truck stops across the state. Those machines went dark late last year after the Supreme Court of Virginia reinstated an earlier law banning them. The legislature and Youngkin have disagreed on the specifics of proposals to tax and regulate skill games, leaving them in limbo when the regular General Assembly session ended earlier this year.

As lawmakers take the unusual move of returning to Richmond in an offseason complicated by summer vacation plans and congressional primaries also taking place Tuesday, they’re stepping back into an environment made more unpredictable by the mix of two contentious issues, House vs. Senate tensions and the partisan posturing that comes with Virginia’s divided government.

The stated reason for the unusual June work session is the intense blowback legislators and Youngkin have received after adopting a budget last month that quietly imposed cost-cutting measures on the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program. That program waives tuition at public colleges and universities for eligible families, and policymakers say a recent spike in VMSDEP participation has created a growing financial strain on public universities that have to absorb the costs.

Military families have launched an advocacy campaign opposing the downsizing of VMSDEP and pressuring lawmakers to reverse changes that impose a stricter Virginia residency requirement, prevent the waivers from being used for advanced degrees or a second undergraduate degree and require participants to first pursue other forms of financial aid before relying on VMSDEP.

Multiple Senate bills have been filed to roll back the VMSDEP reforms.

One fully repeals the changes. The other, favored by Democratic leadership, only reverses some changes, giving families who expected to use VMSDEP benefits more time to solidify college plans without being impacted and specifying the program will only apply to combat-related disabilities or deaths going forward. The program’s current eligibility rules apply to all disabilities or deaths connected to military service, which covers training accidents, mental health struggles and other issues unrelated to combat.

“I am committed to ensuring higher education is affordable for all students,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie E. Locke, D-Hampton, said in a news release last week laying out the bill’s specifics.

A bipartisan group of senators has filed a competing bill to completely reverse the VMSDEP changes, which would leave the program unchanged for now as lawmakers take a deeper look at what’s driving the growth and how it could be addressed without disrupting current and soon-to-be beneficiaries. At least three Senate Democrats have joined with Republicans to back the more sweeping repeal bill, adding to the confusion about what might happen in a body where Democrats hold a slim 21-19 majority.

Because Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, chairs the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, she can decide whether to docket the partial VMSDEP restoration bill she’s sponsoring, the full restoration bill or both. As of Monday evening, the agenda for the committee meeting said “Senate Bills” without specifying any bills in particular.

Kayla Owen, a military spouse and co-founder of the advocacy group Friends of VMSDEP, said she and her allies “support a full repeal and study only.”

The Senate also has multiple bills pending on skill game legalization. Lucas sponsored one;  Senate Republicans sponsored two others.

Any bills the Senate passes Tuesday would still need approval from the House of Delegates, which isn’t scheduled to return to Richmond until June 28 and could differ with the Senate on both VMSDEP and skill games.

Youngkin — who has pushed for a full reversal of the changes made to VMSDEP as opposed to the partial reversal favored by Democratic Senate leadership — doesn’t appear to be on board with the Senate’s plan to tackle both issues at the same time.

“Governor Youngkin has been clear that he will not consider any other legislation until the General Assembly has done the right thing for our military heroes, first responders and their families by fully repealing and reversing the VMSDEP waiver changes,” Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said Monday. He added that the governor is willing to continue discussing skill games, “but only after the VMSDEP issue has been resolved.”

House Speaker Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, previously said the House will only take up the VMSDEP program and doesn’t expect to consider skill game legislation when it meets later this month, according to the Virginian-Pilot. Democratic leaders in the House have also backed a full reversal on the VMSDEP cost-cutting measures.

In an interview Monday, Scott said the House will docket any bill the Senate passes but he reiterated his support for “full repeal” of the VMSDEP changes.

“This gamesmanship is not going to affect what the House does,” Scott said, referring to the Senate’s move to meet before the House and attempt to set the terms of any legislative action that occurs this month. “As a veteran, I don’t play games with veteran benefits.”

The speaker said the House will also take up any skill game legislation that comes over from the Senate, but is unlikely to pursue its own bill on the topic.

The skill game legalization bill sponsored by Lucas would impose a 25% tax rate on the machines and cap the number of machines allowed statewide at 35,000. In concessions to Youngkin’s tougher approach to skill games, the bill also imposes more stringent background checks on people involved in the skill game industry and allows bans on skill games at the city and county level if a particular community opposes them.

Because Lucas’s skill game legislation is styled as a budget bill, it’s written to take effect immediately and allow skill games to be turned back on within 30 days. The bill would allow skill game businesses to reactivate the machines after applying for a state license, but it doesn’t require the license to be issued first.

“We remain hopeful in Governor Youngkin’s commitment to carving a path forward for skill games in the next two weeks alongside the bipartisan group of legislators who have championed this issue on behalf of small businesses in Virginia,” Rich Kelly, a restaurant owner who serves as president of the pro-skill game Virginia Merchants and Amusement Coalition, said in a news release.

Some military advocates and the anti-skill game group Virginians Against Neighborhood Slot Machines have urged legislators to avoid linking the two issues or letting skill games get in the way of addressing VMSDEP.

“The General Assembly should address important veterans issues and not let the special session get complicated by unpopular topics like skill games,” the anti-skill game group said Monday.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Samantha Willis for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and X.

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